This is the sort of stage Donald Trump relishes. An Oval Office address during prime time is his chance to seize the political crisis crippling the federal government and turn it into a decisive win.
It plays to his strengths: the connection with ordinary Americans; on-screen charisma; the opportunity for a big reveal. The Nancy and Chuck show – the Democratic party’s rejoinder to be broadcast from the Capitol – offers nothing in the way of that star power.
But Trump needs to do more than turn up and rely on the Resolute Desk to do the work for him, channeling the power of previous presidents who have addressed the nation in time of crisis.
Make no mistake, he is backed into a corner. He will lose more support among his Congressional party the longer this goes on. Every new story of a family struggling to pay bills, each company laying off staff because they cannot get the right permit, or the fears of millions that they won’t get their food stamps next month will hurt the administration.
How he responds will depend on how he views his presidency so far. Will he continue to be the headstrong figure of 2018 who cleared naysayers from his White House, fought the midterms with a bruising populist call to arms against the critics of Brett Kavanaugh, his Supreme Court nominee, and who exploited the migrant caravan in Mexico to maximum effect? Or will he recognize his new, diminished position after disappointing midterms that stripped him of control of the House.
We will know the answer if he doubles down, declaring a national emergency in an attempt to force through his border wall. That route has its challenges – he would still have to find the cash from other government resources and it would almost certainly be subject to legal review – but it would achieve two Trumpian objectives: bolster the base and seize the agenda.
It would also be a tearing mistake. Immigration did not help him in the midterms. As a Republican in a Las Vegas casino told me as he watched his Senate candidate lose, ‘That issue just isn’t resonating in Nevada and the Sun Belt where there are so many immigrants at work.’
Democrats know they have nothing to fear after picking up 40 seats in November. They are not backing down. It is Republicans in blue states that are starting to come over a little nervous.
That leaves only one way out of this impasse. It’s not one that Trump is going to like but if he is smart there is a way to do it with a flourish, turning defeat into victory of a sort.
When the cameras go live he should simply declare an end to the shutdown. For the good of the country, he should say, he will sign the bills that the Democrats have prepared to restore funding to each of the shuttered parts of the administration – bar one, Homeland Security.
That could be tackled later, the president should spell out, once it has sufficient cash to implement new security measures on the border to deal with the spiraling problems there. At this stage, who actually cares if it is a concrete wall or not? The Trump Base will accept whatever he tells them is a wall, whether it’s a bit of chicken wire and a RadioShack drone, or something off Game of Thrones (to use Trump’s favored meme).
With the president’s nod, Senate Republicans would fall into line and the bills could be passed. Then with work under way to reopen the IRS and get food stamps, housing vouchers and so on up and running, the country’s pain would ease.
Maybe that’s a climbdown for the hardcore. Maybe it’s a sell-out.
But the alternative is to sit tight and wait for a bigger defeat to arrive as inevitably as winter (to keep the Game of Thrones thing going) comes.
Trump has the advantage tonight. He gets the airtime and the reveal. Moreover, he has the setting that affords him the presidential voice, making a strategic withdrawal sound like victory.
Who am I kidding? This shutdown could run and run yet.